Adapted from an article by Jean Rapenne, Production Manager, Vandoren
First Published to Vandoren Magazine No. 4
Perfecting the prototype of a saxophone mouthpiece is still a fascinating undertaking as the possibilities are so vast. Comparatively speaking, the mouthpiece of a clarinet has gradually reached a stage of near perfection in an almost exclusively (so-called) classical music context where the aesthetic choices are, in general, standardized.
The creation of an experimental mouthpiece results from numerous operations of modeling and adjusting on an ebonite or brass base, with the help of heat-setting resins. Step by step, the musical trials guide the progress of the work. Research concentrates on the basic components of the mouthpiece: the chamber (its size, shape, and baffle), the throat, the facing, and certain details of the beak.
By testing the new prototype mouthpieces, musicians can provide valuable feedback and demonstrations for the craftsmen. If the musicians know that their advice and feedback will be followed, the craftsmen can give musicians back their confidence thanks to an appropriate adjustment. But what happens afterwards? The adjusted mouthpiece that produced such good results only a few days ago no longer reacts as well with a new reed. Why?
A prototype – like any adjusted mouthpiece – must be built on a solid foundation, i.e., it must have solid qualities and not just a few flattering assets that will soon be discarded. Only genuine knowledge and experience can make it possible to achieve convincing results. It is only under these conditions that the most difficult stage can be envisaged: mass production. The main difficulty is actually not making one mouthpiece, but to succeed in reproducing it for mass production, while retaining all of its original qualities for the long term.
This particular aspect of production is very important because many musicians will end up changing their mouthpiece at some point. It is vital that they are able to find the same familiarity when choosing another mouthpiece from the range. It should be noted here that slight differences do exist between mouthpieces from the same range. These differences, due mainly to their manual finishing touches, make it possible to offer a few variations, but the foundation of the mouthpiece nevertheless remains.
The Vandoren Solutions
How is it possible to guarantee identical and stable production over the years?
Once the prototype has been fully approved by the musicians participating in the tests, an imprint of the inside is made with a special material that guarantees reproducing exactly the same shape and size. This imprint is then digitized by a computer in order to make the first core pin of steel for the testing mold. The casting procedures tested by Vandoren for many years permit the production of blanks, the insides of which are very close to the finished pieces. Only light finishing touches by hand to match the tip rails are necessary at the end of the process (but the outer part of the mouthpiece must be completely machined).
In general, only casting processes can produce complex inner forms (more complex than the forms obtained by machining) while also guaranteeing perfect reproduction over time. Furthermore, since the pins are digitized, it is always possible to make new ones in the case of accidental damage or wear and tear. The first mouthpieces made from the experimental mold are tested (by musicians) and the pin is adjusted stage by stage until the expected (and desired) result is obtained. The final mold is then made (core and envelope) in a highly resistant chrome steel. The “model,” now perfected, is ready for mass production of blanks.
Every stage of production is checked to specific evaluation benchmarks. The general tolerances, extremely precise, are similar to those of micro-mechanics:
- Turning of the outer form and lengthening of the bore: +/- 0.05 mm,
- Milling of the facing: +/- 0/05 mm.
- Grinding of the beak and cutting of the tip: +/- 0.01 mm.
The facing needs special care since, to guarantee precision, it cannot be adjusted or polished after milling. The facing machines, equipped with natural diamond tools, are checked frequently, especially to check the alignment and thus avoid the “warping” of facings - a little understood occurrence that disturbs production. For each type of facing (A27, A28, AL3, T35, T25, etc.), there are two master models, kept in a safe place sheltered from light and humidity. These are only handled in cases of absolute necessity.
The manual finishing touches to the side rails, the top of the baffle, and the tip rail are done by specially trained adjusters/finishers. Although each one has a particular style, every detail is carefully controlled with the help of measuring rods, ensuring that the spirit of the original model is always respected.
Finally, top musicians test the entire production by carrying out regular tests. All of their comments are recorded and checked. For the members of the production team, the reactions of musicians are always more important than the production constraints.
From the perfection of the prototype all the way to mass production, the birth of a mouthpiece is a question of passion, imagination, and artistic sensitivity, but it is also, and above all, an exercise of patience and technical expertise. Vandoren succeeds in developing new products that are continuously innovative and efficient, backed by the assurance of making identical models five, ten, fifteen and even thirty years later!
Choose a Vandoren saxophone mouthpiece and concentrate on the only thing that is important in the end: the music!